Adrian Beltre has always known how to pick his spots.
The supremely talented 31 year-old third baseman has all the tools to be among baseball's elite hitters. However, his maddening career has born a pattern of inconsistency: he only produces to his potential when up for a new contract. This is a reputation that players want nothing to do with, but Beltre has quickly become associated with it based on his career numbers.
As the Los Angeles Angels targeted him this winter in free agency, I watched in horror. Knowing his reputation, I cringed at the idea of throwing a lavish contract (he is a Scott Boras client, after all) at a 31 year-old third baseman. I know how much of an upgrade he would be at third for the Angels, but I'd rather be underwhelmed by an inexpensive third base platoon than be held hostage by a career underachiever.
As the rival Texas Rangers close in on an accord with Beltre, I am elated and relieved that he likely won't be coming to the Big A. Here are three reasons why the Angels were smart to not get his name on the dotted line.
Beltre finished 2nd in the 2004 NL MVP race
That photo shows Beltre in his finest season by far, 2004.
In 11 seasons, Beltre has signed two free agent contracts, not including his rookie contract of 1994 and the impending Texas deal.
To get perspective on how much better Beltre plays in contract years, let's look at the numbers.
Beltre's averages in the year preceding a new contract:
2004: .334, 48 HR, 121 RBI, 657 plate appearances in 156 games
injury shortened 2009: .265, 8 HR, 44 RBI, 477 plate appearances in 111 games
2010: .321, 28 HR, 102 RBI, 641 plate appearances in 154 games
In two full contract seasons, Beltre crushes the ball, going for about .327, 38 HR, 111 RBI, and 649 plate appearances while missing less than 10 games.
Now let's look at aggregated averages when Beltre was not playing for a new contract:
1999-2003: .265, 18 HR, 73 RBI, 589 plate appearances in 147 games
2005-2008: .266, 24 HR, 88 RBI, 646 plate appearances in 151 games
All together, in those eight seasons: .265, about 20 HR, about 80 RBI, and 620 plate appearances
We see that Beltre clearly plays better on the front side of a rich contract than on the back side of it. The fact that he is looking for a new contract right now sets off red flags in the mind of anyone who has followed his career.
Mike Hampton (remember him?) signed an 8 year, $121 million contract with the Rockies in 2002, one of the biggest busts in recent memory
Carl Pavano. Mike Hampton. Vernon Wells. Barry Zito. Gary Matthews Jr. What do these names have in common? They all signed fat contracts and proceeded to consistently flounder for the next several years.
Beltre will reportedly sign a six year deal for $96 million with the Rangers. The Angels' offer is believed to be for five years/about $70 million. That Angel offer, while steep, is probably a good barometer for what Beltre is actually worth today on the market. The Rangers are giving him an extra year AND committing another $26 million to a guy who has never had back-to-back All-Star seasons. You can imagine the potential that this contract has to decimate the Rangers if Beltre does not prove himself with numbers.
Beltre is a high-risk, high-reward candidate. He could outplay the value of his contract or severely underplay it. Either way, I'm glad somebody other than the Angels is assuming the risk, even with the glaring need they have.
Mike Trout is a highly touted prospect, thanks to the departure of Mark Teixeira in 2009
MLB has an interesting system for ensuring competitive balance. When a player files for free agency, he is categorized, based on several factors, as a Type A or Type B free agent. Type A free agents are typically high impact players, and require the transfer of a top draft pick from the player's new team to his old team. Essentially, every Type A signing is a trade of the player for a high compensation pick.
The Angels would have to surrender a top pick to rival Boston in exchange for Beltre. Many franchises, including the Angels, place a premium on high draft picks for the development of cheap, young talent. Some of the Angels' recent compensation picks have gone on to make a big impact in exchange for departed free agents. Here are the notables: Jeff Mathis, Trevor Bell, Chris Bootcheck, Hank Conger, and Mike Trout. The first three are major league players, and the others are the Angels' current top two prospects.
Compensation picks—and picks that you don't lose by signing free agents—translate directly to young, major league-ready talent. If you lose those picks and whiff on a free agent like Beltre, you set your organization back by years.
Adrian Beltre is an incredible talent who might still be in his prime. He plays an outstanding third base and is among the most talented hitters at the position. His risk is high for reasons already discussed, and when all is said and done, he is not worth overpaying for.
I'm glad that the Angels are exercising caution and restraint, while their division rivals are not.